Course Title: Crisis and Risk Communications

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Session No. 21

Course Title: Crisis and Risk Communications

Session 21: Building an Effective Crisis Communications Capability in a Changing Media


B.Time: 3 hours

Objectives: (See Slide 21-2)
21.1 Discuss the changing media world.
21.2 Discuss how to develop a communications plan.
21.3 Examine processes for information coming in and going out.
21.4 Identify messengers to deliver information.
21.5 Discuss staffing, training and exercise requirements.
21.6 Discuss monitoring, updating and adapting communications activities.

During this session, the instructor will lead a discussion focused on how to build an effective crisis communications capability in a media world that is constantly changing. The discussion will examine how a communications plan is developed and what elements are included in this plan, how information is collected in the field, analyzed and eventually disseminated to internal and external audiences and how to identify those messengers (elected officials, emergency managers, public information officers, etc.) who can most effectively communicate to internal and external audience sin a crisis. Staffing, training and exercise requirements will be noted and discussed as will the need to constantly monitor, update and adapt crisis communications activities.

Student Reading:
Chapter 8 – Building an Effective Disaster Communications Capability in a Changing Media World, George and Kim Haddow. 2008. Disaster Communications in a Changing Media World. Butterworth Heinemann. Burlington, MA. November 2008. (ISBN 978-185615548)
Instructor Reading:
Chapter 8 – Building an Effective Disaster Communications Capability in a Changing Media World, George and Kim Haddow. 2008. Disaster Communications in a Changing Media World. Butterworth Heinemann. Burlington, MA. November 2008. (ISBN 978-185615548)

General Requirements:
Provide lectures on the module content, and facilitate class discussions that expand upon the course content using the personal knowledge and experience of the instructor and students.

Objective 21.1: Discuss the changing media world.

Discuss the changes that are occurring in the media world and how these changes are impacting crisis communications.
Remarks: (See Slide 21-3)

  1. The world of emergency management is changing rapidly.

  1. The onslaught of major catastrophic disasters around the world and the projected impact of global climate change have forced the emergency management community to re-examine all of its processes, including communications.

  1. Managing information before, during and after a disaster has changed significantly in recent years and emergency operations at all levels – local, state and national – must recognize and acknowledge this change and adapt accordingly.

  1. As we have noted throughout this course, the biggest change in disaster communications has come with the emergence of the “first informers” – citizen journalists - and their use of new, widely available online and digital technologies to gather and share information and images.

  1. No organization working in the emergency management field – government, non-governmental groups, voluntary agency, private sector – can ignore the role these “first informers” and their information networks will play in future disasters.

  1. On the contrary, it is incumbent that emergency management organizations embrace the “new media” much the way traditional media outlets (i.e. television, radio, newspapers) have done. (See Slide 21-4) (See Supplemental Considerations)

  1. In the future, emergency management organizations must establish partnerships with both the traditional media outlets and the new media in order to meet their primary communications mission of providing the public with timely and accurate information before, during and after a disaster.

  1. These new partnerships must be based on the communications principles detailed in this course and take full advantage of the various information sources, networks and messengers available to emergency management organizations.

  1. Ask the students: Identify those basic elements that they think will comprise an effective crisis communications capability in the future? Record their responses and compare them to the seven elements identified below.

  1. The purpose of this session is to detail seven elements that comprise an effective crisis communications capability in the future. These seven elements include: (See Slide 21-5)

    1. A Communications Plan

    1. Information Coming In

    1. Information Going Out

    1. Messengers

    1. Staffing

    1. Training and Exercises

    1. Monitor, Update and Adapt

Supplemental Considerations:
FEMA Administrator talking about social media in an interview with The Weather Channel on May 7, 2012.
How does FEMA determine when to step in and respond to a natural disaster?
Decisions are always based upon a request from the governor to the President requesting assistance. But we also learned from Katrina that when it is bad, we don’t necessarily have to wait until the assessments are done. So we’ll use information, sometimes we’ll even use Social Media to make decisions about getting ready and moving  things closer to the state. But assistance is always under the leadership of the governor and it’s at the request of the governor that the President determines whether or not it warrants that assistance.


You mentioned Social Media. It was around at the time of Hurricane Katrina. How has that phenomenon helped change what FEMA does?
I think for government this has been a real challenge. We’ve been real good at broadcasting information out. But we’ve never been really good at understanding how the public took that information, whether they used it nor did we do a good job of listening to people. I think Social Media has a dynamic there that is something that we have to learn how to do a better. That is, we say we want you to do this as action is occurring, but then we can watch people as they communicate back to us and go, “Well, maybe we didn’t do a good job here or maybe they didn’t understand” and we need to re-emphasize that. 

But the other thing is, listen to what people are telling us. Often times they are the best information coming out of a disaster area, well before any official reports come up. And even though you may have the rogue person out there putting our bad information, the general assumption that we find that holds true, if you are crowd-sourcing information the truth will become known and often times the public knows better what is going on in the first hours of an event that even the official channels.


Can you cite an example where Social Media helped FEMA?
I think probably a real good case study of just one example is Joplin (Missouri). We were tracking that day. We knew we had severe weather outbreak potential. But when the original reports started coming up out of Joplin the Social Media side was much more active, because again it is natural. Local responders are still responding to the initial impact. They don’t necessarily have time to say and quantify, “How bad this is.”  

And so those initial reports, balanced against the reports of the tornado really started painting a picture that this was much bigger than you would have assumed because the state had yet to request assistance; they were still responding. So well before this governor (put name here) was putting in a formal request we had already begun moving assistance that way. And again, you are talking about maybe only hours, but that is critical in these types of events to get there as quickly as we can.
Source: The Weather Channel,

Objective 21.2: Discuss how to develop a communications plan.
Lead a discussion that examines how to develop a communications plan and why it is important to a successful crisis communications capability.

  1. Ask the students: What do they think should be included in a crisis communications plan? Record their responses and compare them to the elements of a communications plan listed below.

  1. Planning for communicating in disaster response focuses on collecting, analyzing and disseminating timely and accurate information to the public. (See Slide 21-6)

  1. A disaster response communication plan will include protocols for:

    1. Collecting information from a variety of sources including citizen journalists

    1. Analyzing this data in order to identify resource needs and to match available resources to these needs

    1. Then disseminating information concerning current conditions and actions to the public through both traditional and new media outlets.

  1. The plan will identify trusted messengers who will deliver disaster response information to the public. (See Slide 21-7)

  1. The plan will identify how disaster communications will be delivered to functional needs and non-English speaking populations.

  1. The disaster response communications plan will include a roster of local, state and national media outlets, reporters and first informers. This roster will be contacted to solicit information and to disseminate information back out to the public.

  1. Finally, the plan should include protocols for monitoring the media, identifying new sources of information collection or dissemination and evaluating the effectiveness of the disaster communications. This information would be used to update the plan.

  1. A communications plan for the recovery phase will look very similar to the disaster response plan. (See Slide 21-8)

  1. The recovery phase plan must also include protocols for collecting, analyzing and disseminating timely and accurate information.

  1. During the recovery phase, much of the information to be disseminated to the public will come from government and other relief agencies and focus on available resources to help individuals and communities to rebuild.

  1. The communications plan must place a premium on delivering this information to the targeted audiences and must identify the appropriate communications mechanisms to communicate these messages.

  1. Information collection from the field from a wide variety of sources must be a priority in the communications plan for the recovery phase. Community relations staff, community leaders and first informers are good sources of information on the progress of recovery activities and can provide valuable perspective of the mood of the individuals and communities impacted by the disaster.

  1. These sources are also effective in identifying communities, groups and individuals who have been passed over by recovery programs.

  1. Ask the students: Why is information collection so important to an effective crisis communications capability? What can go wrong when information collection is not done properly and bad information is disseminated?

  1. Communications plans for hazard mitigation and preparedness programs can be very similar to communications plans used in the response and recovery phases and include the basics of a good communications plan including: (See Slide 21-9)

    1. Goal – what do you hope to accomplish. Preparedness campaigns seek to help individuals and communities to be ready for the next disaster while the goal of most hazard mitigation programs are to promote community actions to reduce the impacts of future disasters as was the case in Napa, CA with the Flood Reduction Program.

    1. Objectives – how will you achieve your goal? A common objective for a preparedness campaign is to help families to create a family disaster plan. A hazard mitigation program may seek the support of the voters to pass a bond issue such as the bond issues passed by voters in the City of Berkeley, CA to retrofit critical buildings and infrastructure to resist earthquakes.

    1. Audiences – Whom will your communications plan be speaking to? Target audiences for both preparedness and hazard mitigation communications campaigns may include residents in specific geographic locations, groups of individuals such as homeowners, small business people or families, special needs populations such as children, elderly, disabled and hearing impaired, low-to-moderate income groups and neighborhoods and individuals who own pets.

    1. Tools – what communications mechanisms will be used to communicate with the targeted audience(s)? These mechanisms should include working with traditional media outlets (television, radio, newspapers and the Internet), the new media outlets (SMS, bloggers, bulletin boards) and neighborhood communications networks.

    1. Messengers – who will deliver the messages? Potential messengers include elected and appointed officials, celebrities, trusted community leaders and, as is the case in communicating with children, animated characters.

    1. Timetable – the length of the communications program. Plot the various tasks to be undertaken to successfully implement the plan over a timeframe including days, months and years.

    1. Evaluate – how well did the communications plan work? Develop means for evaluating the effectiveness of the communications campaign. Success could be measured in terms of raising awareness, prompting action or securing the votes needed to pass a bond issue.

  1. In all four phases of emergency management, it is important to have a comprehensive communications plan.

  1. Ask the students: How would the development and implementation of a pre-disaster communications plan for a preparedness program help make a post-disaster communications capability be more effective in the response and recovery phases of a disaster?

Objective 21.3: Examine processes for information coming in and going out.

Lead a discussion examining the processes employed to manage information coming in and going out in a crisis.

  1. INFORMATION COMING IN (See Slide 21-10)

  1. Information is the basis of effective disaster communications.

  1. In disaster response, receiving and processing regular information concerning conditions at a disaster site and what is being done by agencies responding to the disaster allows disaster communicators to provide timely and accurate information to the public.

  1. In collecting this information no potential source should be ignored and all possible sources should be encouraged to forward relevant information. To be successful in this task, you should identify all potential sources of information and develop working relationships with these various sources before the next disaster strikes. You must also be prepared to identify and partner with new sources of information as they come on the scene in the aftermath of a disaster.

  1. Ask the students: Identify potential sources of disaster information during the responses and recovery phase? Record the potential sources identified by the students and compare their list to the list of potential sources listed below.

  1. Potential disaster information sources include: (See Slide 21-11)

    1. Government damage assessment teams – government disaster agencies at every level have staff responsible for assessing damages in the aftermath of a disaster. For a major disaster, a damage assessment team may include representatives from local, state and Federal response agencies. The information collected will include deaths, injuries, damage to homes, infrastructure and the environment and other critical data.

    1. First Responders – among the first on the scene at any disaster, equipped with the necessary communications devices and trained to be observant.

    1. Voluntary Agencies – these groups often have members or volunteers located in the disaster areas trained in damage assessment who can make first and ongoing assessments. For example, the Red Cross has extensive experience in reporting damage to homes and numbers of people evacuated and in shelters.

    1. Community Leaders – trusted leaders who have their own neighborhood network or work with community-based organizations with networks into the community can be a valuable source of on-the-ground information.

    1. First Informers – individuals in the disaster site with the wherewithal to collect information and images and to communicate that information and images by cell phone, hand held device, or laptop.

    1. New Media – Blogs (weblogs), Google Earth, Google Map, Wikis (Wikipedia), SMS (text messaging postings), Twitter, Facebook, Picasa (photo survey sites), YouTube (video sharing sites).

    1. Online News Sites – aggregate of community news, information and opinion (ibrattleboro)

    1. Traditional Media – television, radio and newspaper reporters, editors and news producers can be good sources of information especially if they have deployed news crews to the disaster area before or just after a disaster strikes.

  1. Having identified the potential information sources in your area, you must reach out to these sources to develop a working partnership and to put in place whatever protocols and technologies are needed to accept information from these sources. (See Slide 21-12)

    1. It is important that all potential sources of information understand what types of information you need from any situation so that they are looking for the information you need to make decisions.

    1. Government response agencies and voluntary agencies practicing NIMS and ICS will know what information to collect.

    1. You must reach out to the non-governmental, non-traditional information sources before the next disaster to let them know what information you need and how to communicate that information to you.

  1. Ask the students: Identify how partnerships could be developed with non-governmental and non-traditional information sources? Record the students’ ideas and compare them to the ideas listed below.

  1. Ideas for developing these working partnerships with non-governmental, non-traditional information sources include: (See Slide 21-13)

    1. Build neighborhood communications networks – partner with community-based organizations, churches and neighborhood associations to build neighborhood communications networks. Local residents can be trained in information collection, maybe as part of Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training, and local community leaders can be entrusted to collect this information and forward it to emergency officials. These networks could also be used to send messages from emergency officials to neighborhood residents through trusted community leaders.

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